Last season, because of a lack of workers, some orchardists were unable to pick their crops in a timely manner, resulting in economic losses, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. "There was a major shortage."
Stricter border control by immigration authorities is thought to be the major reason why fewer workers are entering the country from Mexico, Gempler said. Closer scrutiny of documentation is also having an impact. It’s believed that most seasonal agricultural workers in the country do not have legal documentation.
Should the government introduce mandatory electronic verification of documents at the time of hiring, which has been proposed in immigration legislation, it would be more difficult still for aliens to get jobs, he said. "They’re going to find it more difficult—if not impossible—to work in the United States at some point, with more enforcement of borders and documents."
The H-2A guest-worker program is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. Initial requests for workers in Washington State go through the Employment Security Department, as attempts must be made to recruit U.S. workers before the guest-worker request can go forward.
Oscar Trevino, with Employment Security, said in early May that the department had received 20 H-2A applications from agricultural employers in the state for a total of 999 workers, compared with 15 applications for the whole of 2006. Of the 20 applications received this year, 13 were from orchardists requesting a total of 930 workers. None were from farm labor contractors. Employers must request workers at least 45 days before they need them to start work, and Trevino said more workers may be requested.
Gempler guesses that tree fruit growers in Washington will bring in about 2,000 foreign workers through the program, up from only 800 last season. However, that is not many, compared to the number of workers needed to harvest the crops. He estimates that Washington needs between 25,000 and 30,000 workers during peak cherry season and about 45,000 for apple harvest.
Roger Pepperl at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, said he expects the shortage of workers to continue, although a downturn in the building trade might reduce the competition with the construction industry for workers.
Stemilt will bring in more workers through the H-2A program this year, despite the difficulties of meeting all the requirements, such as providing housing for all the workers.
"It’s hard but, like anything else, you have to put the work against it," he said. "We think it’s probably one of the better tools that are available right now. It’s not the cheapest tool, and not the easiest tool, but when you don’t have a lot of choices, you take the best you have."
As well as bringing in foreign workers legally, the industry will have to improve labor management on farms, Pepperl suggested. Growers will have to manage their labor in a very intelligent and logistical way to get as much out of the work force as possible and not lose time or workers because of poor planning.
Jon Wyss, who is in charge of government affairs at Gebbers Farms, Brewster, which is one of the largest fruit growers in Washington State, said the company did not use the H-2A program last year. "We started the process, and it became such an administrative nightmare that we stopped," he said. "I don’t believe we’re going to do any this year."
The company has housing for workers, though the amount is limited because of the high cost of building housing.
Gebbers was able to find adequate labor for last season’s harvest, partly because the crop was down because of hail damage, Wyss said. "Last year, all the stars aligned for us. That’s why it’s really tough to say what’s going to happen this year or what we’re going to face."
Wyss said he’s been focusing his efforts on pushing for federal immigration reform. At times, he’s been convinced that comprehensive immigration reform would pass, but at other times, much more pessimistic.
"It’s almost like watching an opera, where your emotions are so happy, and then so sad," he said. "And then everyone starts to come back together and it ends up being a romantic ending where everybody’s happy, or a tragedy, where everybody dies."
He favors a comprehensive reform over AgJOBS, partly because a comprehensive reform would require verification of documents, and this would enable growers to know if they are hiring documented or undocumented workers. Currently, there’s no way to tell if documentation is authentic or not. However, he sees AgJOBS as a good fall-back position if Congress does not pass a comprehensive immigration bill.